For years I’ve pondered why the French Revolution devolved into the Terror despite the fact its values (liberte, egalite, and fraternite) paralleled nicely those of the American Revolution (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). The answer came slowly to me with further reading (Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Words We Don’t Know Can Also Hurt Us, or, Jesus Was a Liberalist [March, 2012]). In a nutshell, the Terror destroyed the idealism of the French Revolution over the “middle” virtue, egalite, or egalitarianism. Robespierre’s regime began labeling anyone who was different, who stood out from the crowd for any reason (greater skill at something, for instance), as being counter-revolutionary, and, as such, he/she became a potential victim of “Madam” guillotine. In order to avoid the possibility of the “middle” virtue being elevated at the expense of the other two a la Robespierre and have such a tragic event be associated with the term “liberal,” I suggested in the post cited above the political position of “liberalist,” wherein all three virtues must be held co-equal; one or two cannot dominate at the expense of two or one.
Another horrific example of mutilating the intended meaning of egalite is the history of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, outlined from “the inside,” from personal observation, by Chenda Tom in her book He Knows The Plan, Lulu Printing, 2018, ISBN 978-1-387-47663-3. In the 1970’s the radical left-wing Khmer Rouge group, led by the despot Pol Pot, suddenly took over Cambodia and destroyed the country’s society in the name of forcing everyone to be “equal.” The entire population was stripped of professional and occupational designation and forced to live and work in rural camps reminiscent of the Japanese determent camps of WWII. Khmer Rouge “soldier/overlords” allowed the sick and starving to die, as well as killing indiscriminately at any provocation they imagined, resulting in the filling of mass graves wherein countless skulls began to accumulate; over two million died, one quarter of the entire Cambodian population. One died in the Killing Fields if one was not judged “equal.”
Over my teaching career of 40 years, both in public and private school, I was fascinated how parents expected their student children to emerge as intellectual equals, as if the high school diploma made a given student equally as smart as the next. Many schools resisted ranking students academically, though not successfully, as colleges and universities wanted to know how applicants compared with their peers in the classroom. Though not as egregious as the Terror or the Khmer Rouge, this resistance is also indicative of a misunderstanding of equality in the education of young minds.
So terribly can equality be distorted, George Orwell wrote the book Animal Farm as a satire of egalite and equality well before the advent of the Killing Fields. This classic is summarized in the phrase “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Clearly, the ideal of egalite or egalitarianism needs to be qualified.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaims:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…..”
Note the Declaration does NOT say that all Men will turn out equal, just that we all START OUT equal. Thus our society and its sub-units, like schools, are obliged to give all of us equal opportunities and rights AT THE BEGINNING of our citizenship or school, NOT at the end. How we end up is up to us, and our government will not, presumably, behave to give certain citizens advantages over others in the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; in other words, in terms of the French Revolution, liberte, egalite, and fraternite. Exceptions to both American and French egalitarianism for all citizens are instances when the citizens forfeit their opportunities and rights given them at the beginning by violating the law — committing a crime, say.
It is like a race where everyone lines up at the same, fair starting line understanding there is no assurance that everyone will win; breaking the rules of running etiquette during the race will disqualify a runner or runners from winning the race. The parents of school students I mentioned above are like spectators of the race expecting all runners or most of the runners to cross the finish line at the same time. The Terror or the Khmer Rouge is like forcing the entire entourage of racers to step across the finish line simultaneously. If the race is a metaphor of life, the Terror or the Khmer Rouge prevents the racers from “living.”
So, the United States’ Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen give the citizen a QUALIFIED equality — the right not to be handicapped at the start of citizenship and the right to achieve as much as possible without violating the rights of fellow citizens. Chances are our crossing the finish line — making the most of our citizenship — will be a solitary one, with many ahead of us and with many behind.
Just like liberty or freedom is not absolute (We cannot do anything unlawful and/or at the expense of the liberties of our fellow citizens.), egalite is not absolute (We are equal only in opportunity and rights.). Take advantage of your egalite if you are a citizen of the United States or France; your rights and opportunities at the start are indeed the same; how and when you cross the finish line is up to you; if you do your best, you can celebrate the finish line regardless of how your finish compares with others’.
As we physicists like to say, “That is the theory.” Often theory and experiment, or theory and practice are far from being the same. Ideally, the movement of establishing equality in the newly formed United States would begin as soon as the American Revolution ended. Just look at the history of women and of African-American former slaves in the United States to see how far from ideal was the progress of egalite in our country. Slavery was not abolished until 1863; women were not able to vote until 1920, after WWI; widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community did not enjoy the protection of law until the 21st century; reparation to Native American communities did not begin until well into the 20th century; women still do not enjoy equality with men in the work force; xenophobia seems to trump xenophilia still as the reaction to immigration into the US. The road to equality in the USA is still filled with roadblocks of misogyny, racism, sexism, xenophobia, traditional unjust entitlements, and irrational, a-historical nationalism.
As inertia-filled the movement toward equality is, the good news is that there has been reformist progress — the liberal spread of rights and privileges despite conservative resistance — in our country over the last 242 years. I do not know enough modern French history to know how liberal reform and progress in the brain-child of the French Revolution compares, but I think France can make similar claims. I am sure that in the long run both countries have avoided the horrors of Robespierre and Pol Pot — avoided the distortions of an unqualified egalite. Just remember, you two countries, keep all three, liberte, egalite, and fraternite, equally important and equally strong.